Year Released: 2010
Directed by: Kim Jee-Woon
Starring: Jung Woo-sung, Lee Byeong-heon, Song Kang-ho
(Not Rated, 130 min.
"It’s not the destination but the journey that counts." anonymous
A great rain robbery with charismatic cutthroats vying for a mysterious treasure map, shootouts, knife fights, the typical cross and double cross, with a desert opium den thrown in for good measure. You’ll love this madcap race across the Manchurian badlands on horseback, motorcycle, and military convoy with everyone from the local bandits to the occupying Japanese army in for the kill.
Hollywood could take a few lessons from South Korea. This “Western” has it all and then some, and it doesn’t take itself at all seriously. The film, a deliberate homage to Sergio Leon’s classic Spaghetti Western of almost the same name, is also reminiscent of John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre, with some of the flavor of Indiana Jones’ swashbuckling coloring it as well.
One can almost imagine Director Kim Jee-Woon stealing away to the cinema in Seoul on countless Saturdays until these classic reels could run seamlessly in his head. Now he puts his own imprint on them.
The plains of the Great Southwest are replaced by the desert of Manchuria, and our time line has moved to the 1930’s, which is a bit shocking to the audience at times. Steam engines pursued by bandits on horseback, with the occasional motorcycle and sidecar thrown in, are vintage 19th century for Americans. So when Chang-Yi (Lee Byeong-heon) returns to his room to listen to some music, we are taken aback to hear the Big Band sound filling the room.
The three main characters fill the screen with their presence. First to make his appearance is Chang Yi, the Bad, but never has bad carried itself with such rock star style. His carelessly shorn hair drapes over one eye, making one wonder how he manages to kill so efficiently. Or how he keeps his pinstriped suit so meticulously clean in his dusty brawls.
Tae-Goo (Song Kang-ho) is the Weird, a broad faced train robber with 9 lives, his motorcycle helmet and goggles giving him a modern Genghis Khan look. He is almost a bystander to the map quest, finding the scroll among his regular plunder from a train robbery, and then on the run when he learns its value.
Do-Won (Jung Woo-sung) is the Good, which is relative in this case, meaning he is a bounty hunter. He is silent and stoic, his greatcoat and rifle replacing Eastwood’s poncho and pistol. And he fights with a skill that is almost like watching the gravity defying choreography of the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Except in Do-Won’s case, the airs above ground are completely believable, achieved by his strategic use of the pulleys that festoon the thieves’ Ghost Market.
These three characters trade wits and bullets in three stunning action sequences that take your breath away in their precision, audacity, and if I can use this word in relation to murderous mayhem, grace. Director Kim captures the vast, lifeless desert backdrop for the black steam engine that crawls across it like an ambitious ant. Inside, by contrast, the occupants are a colorful patchwork of peasants with their caged chickens, soldiers, and silken ladies in the final private car. Inside Tae-Goo executes his robbery with efficient brutality, while Chang-Yi sweeps in from the hills, and above them both, looking down, Do-Won watches and waits.
The next showdown is where the thieves sell their plunder, the sprawling Ghost Market, a scene of busy chaos not unlike the Cairo bazaar in Raiders of the Lost Ark. There’s a little bit of Tarzan in Do-Won as he cascades above the tin roofs plugging various bad guys, elegant yet lethal. Tae-Goo dons a diver’s helmet, the heavy brass kind, and dodges bullets while he nails a few with his best friend, the German Luger. And when he takes it off, he has the worst case ever of helmet hair. Chang Yi engages in a knife fight that is a bit too graphic for my taste, but adds variety nevertheless.
Finally, we have the no holds barred chase across the desert to the map’s final destination. A literal free for all, with the occupying Japanese army now closing in, we have magnificent displays of horsemanship, Do-Won doing John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn one better. Rooster shot with both hands while he held the reins in his teeth. Do-Won guides his horse by telepathy while he mans his rifle. In all fairness, though, Rooster had only one good eye.
It’s a montage of one epoch giving way to another, the horse to the iron horse, the locomotive, to the motorcycle to the truck. Here they all crowd the screen together, as the horses leap from small artillery while somehow Tae-Goo evades them all in his motor sidecar.
This is a romp of visual splendor, technical perfection, bad guys you can’t help but love – in a sick sort of way, of course – and peppered with just the right amount of humor. Not to miss, even with subtitles.
With all the bloodshed in this Korean film, red meat certainly comes to mind. And even those of us attached to Texas barbecue, will have to hand it to the Koreans for this tasty dish.
First, they make a “Western” that rivals some of our best, and now they want to compete at the grill. This might not end well.
Korean Barbecued Beef
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 1/4 teaspoons cayenne
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 1/2 teaspoons vinegar
2 tablespoons sesame oil or other oil
1 dash black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons sesame seeds
1 green onion, and top sliced
1 lb chuck boneless beef cube
2 cups long-grain white rice
Mix all ingredients in container to marinate.
Cover and refrigerate overnight (if time is short, go for at least 8 hours).
To barbecue (best), BBQ on high heat one minute each side.
Or indoors, get skillet (iron is best) very hot.
Toss in meat and cook over high heat 2 minutes each side.
Quick fry the onions and add marinade.
Serve over rice cooked as usual, using two cups uncooked rice.
Recipe Source: Recipezaar.com